More than 30 years ago, close-minded sitcom character George Jefferson dogged neighbors Helen and Tom Willis for partaking in an interracial relationship. The pint-sized loudmouth dubbed the duo a "zebra," and audiences howled with laughter because the notion of a mixed-race couple was relatively unfamiliar. By the time the television show went off the air in 1985, the joke had run its course.
So why is scripter Kriss Turner, a veteran of generic sitcom writing, attempting to blow the dust off the concept for newfound laughs? Turner's treatment for Sanaa Hamri's Something New pits races against each other to tell the often-turbulent courtship of Kenya (Sanaa Lathan), a black accountant, and Brian (Simon Baker), her white landscape architect. Color colors everything for this duo as they try to make a relationship work, and New overplays the racial chip on its shoulder to the detriment of the romantic date movie that's buried at its core.
Hamri, making her directorial debut, shows initial promise by tweaking the romantic-comedy formula in the film's opening minutes. A funny fantasy sequence opens New, and the soundtrack twists to fit the film's pessimistic mood. We meet four single friends who've adopted the slogan "Let go, let flow" as they search for the I.B.M. (ideal black man). Three of the ladies fall by the wayside, though, as New follows closed-off, stuck-up ice queen Kenya. She resists when meeting Brian, a man hot enough to melt her barriers, because he's white. Their first date, a blind meeting in a Starbucks, is one of many broadly drawn interactions where Kenya overreacts simply because she's being seen in public with a white man. In today's day and age, one would think whites and blacks could share the same table in a crowded coffee shop without raising eyebrows.
When you have no one, the need to find someone can consume, and New advances the relationship because Kenya can't stand to be alone anymore. So Brian doesn't fit her preconceived notions. As the title suggests, we're trying something new, and the actors slowly foster credible chemistry. Lathan and Baker find a spark that warms their connection every time Turner and Hamri leave them out in the cold.
New merely suffers from the same old continuity gaffs and blatant hurdles that accompany bad writing. This marks Turner's first stab at feature-film writing, but she holds on to the episodic contrivances that plague today's lamest sitcoms. Lathan trudges through an awkward drunk scene, where her character speaks her mind with alcohol's assistance. There are repeated fights between the lovebirds in public places, a trick that puts both of them in the minority to emphasize the pressures they face.
Good directors can overcome clichéd writing, but Hamri plays to the level of her screenplay. She casts capable performers in roles too small to explore - Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood stop by briefly. An erotic bit of performance art disrupts the film's middle act, shot and edited like a leftover scene from Showtime After Dark. Hamri finally reveals her distrust in the audience when she clubs us over the head with forced romantic symbolism. While hiking through the woods, Brian and Kenya actually pass through a dark tunnel and emerge on the other side of a well-lit mountain where a sudden burst of rain washes away her hesitations and prejudices. Subtle, much?
Now that's new: Starbucks!